Monday, February 23, 2015

Five years ago on February 23, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it." - Martin Luther King Jr.

"I am convinced that publicity is the sole effective means of combating the evil and lawlessness which is rampant in my country today." - Anatoli Marchenko

Orlando Zapata Tamayo
Human Rights Defender

May 15, 1967 - February 23, 2010
 Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on February 23, 2010 after a prolonged water only hunger strike in which prison authorities over the course of more than two weeks on and off refused him water. Following his death the Castro regime and its agents of influence sought to slander Orlando's memory. However, activists who knew Orlando had already spoken on the record as had Amnesty International.

For example, on the same day Orlando Zapata died, Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas in a heartfelt message explained the circumstances surrounding his untimely death:
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, died on this afternoon, February 23, 2010, after suffering many indignities, racist slights, beatings and abuse by prison guards and State Security. Zapata was killed slowly over many days and many months in every prison in which he was confined. Zapata was imprisoned for denouncing human rights violations and for daring to speak openly of the Varela Project in Havana's Central Park. He was not a terrorist, or conspirator, or used violence. Initially he was sentenced to three years in prison, but after successive provocations and maneuvers staged by his executioners, he was sentenced to more than thirty years in prison.
The slander campaign, so far, has failed because people of good will paid attention and refused to remain silent. In Canada, a punk rock band composed and played a song titled Orlando Zapata that placed his death in context. A video accompanying the song was edited by the Free Cuba Foundation. Orlando's death focused attention on Cuban prisoners of conscience and was a factor in their release between 2010 and early 2011.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was born in Santiago, Cuba on May 15, 1967. He was by vocation a brick layer and also a human rights activist, a member of the Movimiento Alternativa Republicana, Alternative Republican Movement, and of the Consejo Nacional de Resistencia Cívica, National Civic Resistance Committee. Orlando gathered signatures for the Varela Project, a citizen initiative to amend the Cuban constitution using legal means with the aim of bringing Cuba in line with international human rights standards.

Amnesty International had documented how Orlando had been arrested several times in the past. For example he was temporarily detained on 3 July 2002 and 28 October 2002. In November of 2002 after taking part in a workshop on human rights in the central Havana park, José Martí, he and eight other government opponents were arrested and later released. He was also arrested on December 6, 2002 along with fellow prisoners of conscience Oscar Elías Biscet and Raúl Arencibia Fajardo.  

Dr. Biscet just released from prison a month earlier had sought to form a grassroots project for the promotion of human rights called "Friends of Human Rights." State security prevented them from entering the home of Raúl Arencibia Fajardo, Oscar Biscet, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Virgilio Marante Güelmes and 12 others held a sit-in in the street in protest and chanted "long live human rights" and "freedom for political prisoners." They were then arrested and taken to the Tenth Unit of the National Revolutionary Police, Décima Unidad de La Policía Nacional Revolucionaria (PNR), in Havana.

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was released three months later on March 8, 2003, but Oscar Elias Biscet, Virgilio Marante Güelmes, and Raúl Arencibia Fajardo remained imprisoned. On the morning of March 20, 2003 whilst taking part in a fast at the Fundación Jesús Yánez Pelletier, Jesús Yánez Pelletier Foundation, in Havana, to demand the release of Oscar Biscet and the other political prisoners. Orlando was taken to the Villa Marista State Security Headquarters. 

He was moved around several prisons, including Quivicán Prison, Guanajay Prison, and Combinado del Este Prison in Havana. Where according to Amnesty International on October 20, 2003 Orlando was dragged along the floor of Combinado del Este Prison by prison officials after requesting medical attention, leaving his back full of lacerations. Orlando managed to smuggle a letter out following a brutal beating it was published in April of 2004:
My dear brothers in the internal opposition in Cuba. I have many things to say to you, but I did not want to do it with paper and ink, because I hope to go to you one day when our country is free without the Castro dictatorship. Long live human rights, with my blood I wrote to you so that this be saved as evidence of the savagery we are subjected to...
On May 18, 2004 Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Virgilio Marante Güelmes, and Raúl Arencibia Fajardo were each sentenced to three years in prison for contempt for authority, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in a one-day trial. Orlando Zapata Tamayo would continue his rebelliousness and his non-violent resistance posture while in prison and suffer numerous beatings and new charges of disobedience and disrespect leading to decades added to his prison sentence in eight additional trials.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas with picture of Orlando Zapata Tamayo
The importance of remembrance
 Friends of freedom all too often are on the defensive explaining who and what they are against. The lives of courageous nonviolent activists such as Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, Harold Cepero Escalante, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo and the four men murdered in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down who were martyred by the Castro dictatorship should be remembered and told to others. The enemies of freedom do not like to have such heroes remembered and honored.  For example on May 24, 2010 in Oslo, Norway a Cuban diplomat attacked and bit a 19 year old Cuban-Norwegian girl who was filming her mother's protest on behalf of Orlando Zapata Tamayo outside of the Cuban embassy. The whole episode was a public relations disaster for the Castro dictatorship in Norway.

Take action
People of good will around the world who wish to remember can join in a 24-hour water-only fast starting at 3 p.m. on Feb. 23, the day and time that Orlando Zapata Tamayo died on hunger strike followed by a silent vigil the following day from 3:21 p.m. to 3:27 p.m. to correspond with the times Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario De La Peña and Armando Alejandre Jr. were shot down on February 24th. 

Fasting for 24 hours is a limited way to step, albeit briefly and incompletely, into Orlando Zapata Tamayo's shoes. Beginning the fast at 3:00pm on February 23 and completing it on February 24 at 3:00pm just in time to honor and remember the four members of Brothers to the Rescue seems an appropriate way to pay homage.

They all demonstrated with the lives they led and by how they died that the Bible passage, John 15:13 is as relevant as ever: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." Please use all the means at your disposal through social media and word of mouth to let others know about them.

The price of indifference
The failure of solidarity with Cubans in the island has led to the Castro regime not only increasing repression at home but also projecting itself elsewhere in the Americas and sadly now Venezuelans are also dying or being killed for defending freedom in their country.

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